During the Cold War, Western democracies often allowed their partners and allies in distant corners of the world to brutalise their citizens for the sake of paramount geopolitical goals. Now that a second Cold War may well have begun, must we allow our own citizens to be brutalised by our allies and partners? That, at least, is the unavoidable question after Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, announced that his government had credible evidence that the Indian state was involved in the shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist, in a Vancouver suburb in June.
The truth is that the reaction to the assassination of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil has been remarkably muted. We know that Western leaders were fully aware of the accusation and the evidence supporting it when they visited Delhi for the G20 meeting this month. They still joined in all the celebrations, competing to fete Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister.
One opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal went so far as to call for Trudeau to “walk back his accusation”. In case you might think the justification for the request was the implausibility of the accusation, Tunku Varadarajan, the author of the piece, added that Modi should reciprocate by assuring everyone that he would never do such a thing again. The accusation, the implication went, is almost certainly true, but Trudeau must retract it because we need Modi in the trenches against China. We should give him anything he asks in return, including, it seems, the occasional sacrifice of our own citizens.
The Indian opposition MP Shashi Tharoor also seems to take it as obvious that the Indian government committed the deed, preferring to point out that Western democracies have always arrogated the right to perform extrajudicial killings themselves. He is not wrong on this, but the argument ignores two important points. First, and needless to say, an illegal violation of national sovereignty should not be used to justify other acts of the same type. Whataboutism, if it is to be accepted, should not be used to exculpate the guilty but rather to demand that all be held responsible.
More importantly, perhaps, Tharoor ignores geopolitical realities. Western democracies do not orchestrate assassinations inside the borders of their friends and allies. By killing a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, the Indian government would be making a mockery of its announced intention to work closely together with Western democracies on common challenges. These are the kind of acts enemies plot against each other. The realpolitik arguments being rehearsed by Western officials and commentators are incomprehensible. It would be one thing to accept that one of our partners would fail to live up to certain standards or values in its political conduct. But to accept that our partners directly act against us and in the same determinate manner that the Kremlin acts against us is a form of political madness. Or geopolitical desperation.
The episode is serious and the consequences are only starting to be felt. If the Biden administration thought that it could guide India in certain desirable directions, that illusion, which survived disagreements on Ukraine, has now started to crumble. And if the future of the liberal world was to be redeemed – after the bitter disappointments with Russia, Iran and China – by a new alliance with the last of the Eurasian giants, that future looks less bright today than a week ago. Unfortunately, the response seems to consist in looking the other way.